My core business is working with young people who are using substances and helping them to cut down or get off those substances. I’ve been working in this field for 22 years and the main substances kids use are the same – alcohol and cannabis. They may hav tried LSD, mushrooms, eccies (ecstasy) or cocaine, but their staple drug is usually cannabis or alcohol. Usually their parents refer them to me, and a young person is reluctant because they don’t see a problem – then we need to get that young person to a point where they also see their substance use is a problem.
People use drugs because they change the way they feel. The first time a young person uses they’ll have positive feelings and then they come back down to normal. So they use that drug again and then again because it feels good. Then something happens that wouldn’t have happened if they weren’t under the influence of that substance. Maybe a child misses school because they’re going to a friend’s house to smoke or drink, or they’re out late and the police bring them home, or they drink too much in the park, throw up and need an ambulance, or they can’t be bothered to go to football or netball.
Kids block out that event by minimising it, rationalising it or blaming someone else, but when they come down again they end up a bit below normal and start to have some negative feelings, like sadness, anger, depression. So they use again to change those negative emotions and get that high, but they’re starting from a lower baseline so they need more drugs … It starts to get messy and friends drop away because it’s not fun any more.
Parents often have an inkling something is going on but it’s easier to hope it’s just a phase. But when mum and dad start to see these events happening they need to become stricter. Don’t fall into the trap of trying to be a friend rather than a parent. If you tell your child ‘I’ll let you go to the party and only take two UDLs’, your kid will go to the party and drink those two UDLs and more. They see those two UDLs as you giving them permission to drink. If a parent says ‘you can go to the party but I will pick you up at 2am and if I smell alcohol on your breath I’m turning the internet off for a week’, the child may still drink, but not to the same extent. Parents need to set the bar high so you can add some grace and lower it a little as needed. But if you give your child two UDLs to take to a party and they come home drunk, what can you say?
These things happen under lack of supervision. Kids are being left at the party and might say parents are going to be there but they’re not. You need to be at the party or you need to talk to the parent who will be there and ask them for their take on alcohol and drug use. Or kids may say they are having a sleepover at so and so’s house and then you discover that person’s mum and dad are going to be out. That’s when you go and pick them up. You are not going to be popular but does that matter? Really?
Years ago we thought the human brain stopped developing by the age of about 13. Now we know the brain doesn’t stop developing until the age of 27, and the last bit to develop is the frontal lobe. That’s the part that deals with impulse control, decision making and thinking about the consequences of what we do. So we have all these kids walking around without their frontal lobe, and that’s our job as parents. Be your child’s frontal lobe.
Once a parent discovers that their child is using drugs or alcohol, more often than not the child has been using drugs or alcohol without any negative consequences for some time. So, parents need to re-examine their child’s behaviour in the context of that child’s drug or alcohol use, and help their child make the connections that show how their drug or alcohol use has a negative effect on their health, their lifestyle, school, work, on their relationships with friends and peers, and on the people who love them – mum, dad and siblings. Also show how drug or alcohol use can have negative effect on the legal system – with the police and the courts because they may be doing something that is illegal. It is important to have an open conversation with the child. If this is difficult get some professional assistance.
Rene de Sant’Anna works at Odyssey House with young people aged 12 to 24 who are using drugs and/or alcohol and want to stop. He also supports parents and families.
Rene de Sant’Anna was interviewed by Sarah Marinos